STAGE REVIEW: Trial by Laughter - at the Festival Theatre, Malvern, from Tuesday, January 22 to Saturday, January 26, 2019.

FACT, it has often been claimed, can be stranger and certainly funnier than fiction and this unusual and entertainingly witty offering of a true story definitely adds to the argument in favour.

It’s more than likely the jury wouldn’t have had to remain out deliberating for too long before returning a unanimous verdict that this is a quality production both in terms of writing and acting with Joseph Prowen’s performance as William Hone - the central character, quite literally, honed to perfection.

The story is about the ongoing battle for press freedom and free speech and although set in the closing weeks of 1817 such shenanigans have rattled around in the ensuing 200 years or so and is every bit as relevant today.

Written by Private Eye editor and tv panellist Ian Hislop and fellow wordsmith Nick Newman, who have in the past worked on the outrageous Spitting Image tv show, we had the pair admitting on stage they hadn’t previously heard of Hone.

He was first mentioned to them by the former controller of BBC2, Janice Hallow, who ‘introduced’ them to the man who was taken to court three times in three days and won his ‘freedom’ each time!

This admission occurred when they came on stage after attending Malvern’s packed house opening night, which also marked the continuation of the play’s 2018-19 UK tour after the festive break.

The pair, who were responsible for the splendidly uplifting BBC2 film and stage show, The Wipers Times, are satirists in their own right and Hislop, who has faced judges in court himself, told the audience Hone had been an extraordinary man who had not only been a champion of civil liberties but also a campaigner for the reform of lunatic asylums and the jury system.

“The story is unique and sells itself,” and both agreed there had been no need for them to put in additional material as Hone’s trials were ready made and ripe for dramatisation.

Hone’s persecution 200 years ago by the Regency government for seditious libel and blasphemy was a bid to bring an end to jokes and criticism of the Tory government and the monarchy, in particular the Prince Regent, George, by preventing publication of many pamphlets and prints which Hone produced in collaboration with the celebrated cartoonist of the time, George Cruikshank.

Hislop and Newman possibly saw glimpses of themselves in certain respects and the enthusiasm to do Hone’s story of arrest and trials three days in a row was surely stoked by journalists wanting to write about journalists and the free press.

Pre-interval it’s didn’t quite yell out ‘Hold the front page’ - but the initial spade work was entertaining and gradually gripping and then the fun and frolics level was considerably ratcheted up.

It’s witty, neatly woven and captures the essence of the era when a small select band ruled the country and looked after themselves.

Was that then, or is it now? It’s certainly open to conjecture.

Our co-authors owe a great debt to Hone, who wrote his own memoirs and they were also able to draw heavily on court records for much of the dialogue. There’s a lot of it to get through too, especially for Prowen playing Hone, and it could have been too heavy a burden but the cast master it perfectly with great style and panache.

And it’s only a small cast, but their quick role switches steadily crank up the pace and humour, while the set is a cleverly constructed panelled operation which smoothly morphs into ribald activities in a pub, a court-room or a prison cell.

Excellent portrayals too from Peter Losasso, the heavy-drinking cartoonist Cruikshank; Dan Mersh - as the ever eager thorn in the side of Hone, Lord Judge Ellenborough, a toff totally irritated and raging against an impertinent and impoverished bookseller.

Ranking alongside it was Jeremy Lloyd’s Prince Regent, the future George III, with his madcap behaviour and mistresses. Fine support too from the rest of the cast.

In essence Trial By Laughter is a thought-provoking look back at the early days of modern satire and where the defendant relied on his wit to resist the continual judicial onslaught through laughter in court.

It shows how the law can sometime’s be an ass, but as long as men like Hone are around, such as Hislop, Newman and others, the tail can still be swished in the face of the Establishment!